Far from making the U.S. great again, Donald Trump’s decision to take the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement makes it a rogue nation on climate change. I know from my own experience as a climate negotiator for the U.K. government that more than 20 years of work and an enormous effort went into reaching a truly global agreement. However, Trump’s action will not unwind the existing momentum. In fact, the U.S. isolation risks its economy and core interests.
Trump thinks Paris is a “bad deal” for the U.S. What nobody in the White House seems to realize is the amount of effort that went into accommodating the U.S. in this agreement. The legal shape of the agreement was guided by opposition from the previous Bush administration to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds it would “harm the US economy.” The country pledges under the agreement were voluntary and non-binding for this very reason, and included both developed and developing countries.
Back in 2008, despite George W. Bush’s early rhetoric on climate change, he committed $2 billion to the Clean Technology Fund to help developing nations make greater use of clean energy sources. George Bush recognized the problem of climate change and understood the need to reduce U.S. dependence on oil. Barack Obama was actually following in the footsteps of the previous Republican administration when he committed to helping poor countries fight climate change.
What Trump should also realize is the science. The Paris Agreement puts us on the right road, but we are not going far enough or fast enough. The pledges are not enough to keep the world below 2 degrees of warming—but they are better than the alternative of runaway emissions that could trigger catastrophic tipping points. Climate change will lead to huge losses and damage, as well as mass migration of people unless the impacts are curtailed. U.S. citizens will also be vulnerable—just look at the unprecedented impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New York, which scientists have linked to rising sea temperatures. American exceptionalism on climate change is not in the U.S. national interest. In fact, Trump is failing to keep his citizens safe by stepping back from global cooperation.
Climate change is a moral issue that threatens the lives of millions of people. The World Bank has estimated that climate change could drive more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. Trump’s apparent ally Russian President Vladimir Putin fails to accept the evidence and thinks climate change will be beneficial for Russia. But global warming has been tied to more frequent forest fires and flooding across Russia, as well as severe damage to infrastructure as permafrost melts.
Not only is there risk of economic sanctions against the U.S., but of personal boycotts of Trump-associated products due to his actions. Trump’s companies risk becoming a toxic brand. You can imagine civil society groups now calling for a boycott of products relating to Trump. Public opinion polling in the U.S. also shows 71 percent of Americans in support of the Paris Climate Agreement.
But if this damages his reputation among voters, who is Trump making this decision for? The decision puts his alleged ties to Russia under the spotlight.
Economic fundamentals remain unchanged: Trump is ceding to Chinese leadership
Action to decarbonize and build a low carbon economy has already started. This is clear from trends in the real economy: Trump is going against the weight of the economic as well scientific evidence. The costs of renewable energy are falling, and in the US, coal is even more costly than renewables when you take into account the costs for public health.
Given China’s expertise in renewable energy, the U.S. is now ceding leadership to China—not only in terms of 'soft power' but also economic power. The new EU-China agreement on climate change is evidence of this, with EU and China both vowing to deepen their cooperation on climate change.
There is a reason why business leaders tried to persuade Trump not to leave the Paris Agreement. Expanding markets for clean energy are creating jobs, while reducing climate risks. By failing to compete on clean energy, the U.S. is harming millions of American workers in the renewable energy sector, as well as reducing the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.
Some of the most exciting and innovative companies, such as Apple and Google, are on the cutting edge of the low carbon transition—recognizing the need to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Trump’s support for dirty industry is a last gasp of an outdated mode of thinking, and one that the rest of the world will not take lightly.